May 2014
May 09, 2014

How Spencerport's anti-testing petition sparked, caught fire

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
NYSUT members in Spencerport spearheaded an online petition drive against SED’s testing policies. Holding the banner in Cosgrove Middle School are, from left, Spencerport TA President John Kozlowski, Claudia Montecalvo, Emmy Thevanesan and Rob Allen.
Caption: NYSUT members in Spencerport spearheaded an online petition drive against SED's testing policies. Holding the banner in Cosgrove Middle School are, from left, Spencerport TA President John Kozlowski, Claudia Montecalvo, Emmy Thevanesan and Rob Allen. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

It began as a simple "reply all" when Spencerport teacher Emmy Thevanesan fired off a note venting her frustrations with the State Education Department's latest round of grade 3-8 English language arts exams. Soon a colleague added her comments to the email chain, then others joined in.

They blasted the statewide ELA assessments as "deeply flawed," developmentally inappropriate and "completely useless" to help students learn. Others noted the tests were poorly written, deliberately confusing and seemingly disconnected from the Common Core skills they were supposed to be testing. Educators complained students did not have enough time to finish the exams, which heightened stress and anxiety for students and teachers.

Educators desperately wanted to give specifics about where the tests went wrong — but felt "gagged" because SED ordered teachers to sign confidentiality agreements to not talk about the test contents with parents, students or each other.

The lively email interchange quickly took on a life of its own — becoming a sort of online faculty room conversation among Spencerport's Cosgrove Middle School teachers.

"A colleague suggested we take all the comments and turn them into a petition to the commissioner [John King Jr.] and the Regents," Thevanesan said. "We quickly had more than 60 signatures — just from our middle school."

From there, the spark caught fire. Greg McCrea, president of the Westhill Education Association near Syracuse, volunteered his help to Spencerport TA President John Kozlowski in creating a website to broaden the petition's reach.

NYSUT shared the grass-roots action through its website, leader e-newsletter and social media. NYSUT President Karen E. Magee gave Spencerport a shoutout and Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, using Twitter, urged educators across the state to "Stand with Spencerport." A Long Island science teacher perhaps said it best: "Even one member's spark can ignite a blaze of change!"

The result: At least 5,000 activists (and counting) have since signed the online petition.

"I knew that if we could turn this into a grass-roots movement, we had a better chance of getting SED's attention," Kozlowski said. "I couldn't be prouder of the members I serve."

The Cosgrove teachers believe the state is using a "gag order" to hide questions from parents and taxpayers.

Claudia Montecalvo, a 30-year English teacher, parent and grandparent, recalled at a recent school board meeting how the state used to release grade 3-8 ELA and math exam questions and answers — and teachers used that information to guide district curriculum and classroom instruction.

Rob Allen, one of Cosgrove's ELA teachers who helped write the petition, said he felt a moral obligation to speak out against exams that he believes are serving as a sorting mechanism for the state rather than tools to improve student learning: "Any high-stakes assessments must be legitimate, transparent and designed and implemented in a way that provides teachers with timely, relevant feedback to use in our classrooms."

The petition — at www.standwithspencerport.wordpress.com — calls for release of state tests to educators and the public for scrutiny.